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Introduction

This presentation explains and illustrates how to identify and draw


watershed boundaries on a topographic map. The process is
explained step by step in the next 16 pages. You should review this
presentation until you have a good understanding of the process and
then test your watershed delineation skills using the two additional
topographic maps provided in pages 18 and 19 of this presentation.
The correct delineations (i.e., the answers) for those two watersheds
are provided on the last two pages of this presentation (pages 20 and
21). Note that the delineation of the second test watershed is more
difficult than that of the first because the landscape is flatter, which
makes the features shown by the topographic lines less obvious.
Drawing Watershed Boundaries
When we talk about the hydrologic cycle and the water budget, we
typically talk about these things in terms of watersheds. So first you
should know what a watershed is.
Watersheds are topographically defined areas something like bowls.
What we mean by that is that a watershed is separated from
neighboring watersheds by high points on the landscape. You can think
of a watershed as an area that, if precipitation falling into it was not
evaporated back to the atmosphere and did not infiltrate into the soil, all
of the water in the watershed would run downhill to the same stream.
Delineating watershed boundaries. All watershed delineation means
is that youre drawing lines on a map to identify a watersheds
boundaries. These are typically drawn on topographic maps using
information from contour lines. Contour lines are lines of equal
elevation, so any point along a given contour line is the same elevation.
To delineate a watersheds boundaries on a topographic map its easiest if you
first understand some things about these maps. Rather than taking a lot of time
to explain that here, there are several good web sites that describe this. I
recommend that you Google Read a topographic map to access some of
those sites. But here are a few highlights of topographic maps, and a bit more
information will be given later in the presentation.
1) The primary lines on a topographic map are called contour lines, and as
stated before, they represent points of equal elevations. Some of these lines
are numbered, and those numbers are the elevations of those contour lines. In
the U.S., those elevations are typically given in feet above sea level. You can
move across contour lines and know if the elevation is increasing or decreasing,
by whether the number is increasing or decreasing. 2) Streams and rivers are
shown by blue lines. Solid blue lines show perennial streams, and the dashed
blue lines show what are estimated to be intermittent streams. 3) Contour lines
point upstream (they form kind of what looks like a V) as they cross over a
stream or river. 4) The closer the contour lines are together the steeper the
terrain; the further apart they are the flatter the terrain.
So lets go through the steps to delineate a watersheds boundaries.
First you need to identify the stream whose watershed
boundaries you are going to identify. So lets say on this map
were going to delineate the watershed boundary for Billy Goat
Run. So look for blue lines and find the one on this map with
the name Billy Goat Run. It is in the lower left quadrant of this
map.
Next find the point on the stream that is the mouth of the
watershed. The mouth of the watershed is the furthest
downstream point of that stream, just where it meets
another stream. By the way, the point where two streams
or rivers meet is called their confluence. Remember,
where contour lines intersect streams, they point upstream
(the point of the V points upstream). Consequently, the
mouth of the watershed will be in the opposite direction of
where the contour line Vs point. So, the red circle marks
the mouth of the watershed.
Now youre ready to start tracing the watershed boundary, or the highest
elevations that surround your watershed. You always start at the mouth
of the watershed, which is also the lowest elevation of the watershed.
In order to identify these high points, we have to know just a little bit
more about topographic maps and how water will flow. One indicator of
the high points or ridge lines is a bulge in a contour line that looks
something like this:
But how do you know exactly where on that bulge to draw the watershed
boundary? To figure that out, you need to understand how a contour
line indicates the direction of water flow. Water will flow perpendicular to
each contour line. For example, if the brown lines below are contour
lines, the green arrows show the direction water would flow on the
ground.
So lets return to Billy Goat Run watershed, and try your hand at
watershed delineation.
x xx x
Go to the first contour line on the right side of the circle marking the confluence. The watershed boundary on that line would
be where the red X is located. Heres why. If you put the point further to the right on that contour line, a line perpendicular
to the contour line would point to the right of the confluence (see the green arrow) and water flowing that direction wouldnt
flow into Billy Goat Run. Instead, it would flow into the larger stream that Billy Goat Run flows into. If you put your first point
to the left of the X on that contour line, you can see the pink arrow indicates that water would move toward Bully Goat Run;
which is what we want. HOWEVER, this point isnt the highest point, because flow at the red X would still be in the
watershed and would flow approximately to the confluence. So this point is as far out on the contour line as you can go
AND still have water flowing into the watershed. This X is the correct location for the start of the watershed boundary
because the characteristics of that point make it the highest elevation on that contour line that would still allow water to drain
into Billy Goat Run.
Continue using this kind of thought process to
identify where the boundary makes most sense.
Think about those bulges and the direction of
flow at each contour line. Using this logic, the
red Xs on the map, indicate where the next
several points on the contour lines should be
located to identify the watershed boundary.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
At this point on the map, weve kind of lost the presence of obvious
bulges. Thats because the ground is actually becoming flatter and
wider along the ridge. You can tell this because the contour lines now
have things that look like circles, ovals, or oddly shaped circles (that is
if you pick a point on the contour line, and follow it around, it simply
returns back to that original point). For simplicity, Ill refer to these as
circles.
Single circles or circles within other circles identify high or low points on
a topographic map. But since youve been going along the high point of
the ridge, you know that these circles are high points. The approximate
center of the most-inner circle is assumed to approximate the highest
point on the ground in that area.
So using that information you can identify where
the next several points should be located.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
Now you need to do some in-depth examination of the map to
make sure youre still going to head in the correct direction.
That is, if you continue looking for circles you may proceed
further out a ridgeline, but it may be the wrong ridge. If you
choose the route shown by the red Xs on this map, and then
draw perpendicular lines anywhere on the circles surrounding
them, youll see that water would not flow downhill toward Billy
Goat Run.
However, if you move to the next contour line that
is directly below the last X, you see that you
again start moving toward bulges in the contour
lines. And in fact, if you continue to draw
perpendicular lines from points along the tips of
those bulges, water continues to be directed
toward Billy Goat Run. So these are the correct
points.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
saddle
x xx x
You may get a bit confused at this point, because
you are now faced with a location where contour
lines start coming together from opposite sides,
but they dont meet (i.e., the two blue contour
lines). This type of landform is called a saddle,
and saddles are very common on ridges. They
join higher points on the ridge on either side of
the saddle. As with the circles, the center of the
saddle is assumed to be the approximate high
point on the ridge (the red X in the saddle).
Once you navigate through the saddle, you see
you start to pick up the bulges again, so you
simply have to find the locations on these that
allow water to move toward Billy Goat Run. As
you proceed marking the high points on the
map, youll once again come to another high
point within a circle (near the bottom of the page
where the last red X is shown).
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
Just to make things clearer, lets join the Xs to see
what the boundary looks like so far.
Now that youve gotten this far, look at the contour
lines for the remaining portion of the watershed
delineation. You should be able to see generally
where you should be going. Do you see the circles
within circles, saddles, and bulges in the contour
lines? Use these to estimate the direction you
should be going, and remember to check the
direction of flow.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
As you proceed along the ridgeline
toward the confluence, pay close
attention to the direction of water flow.
Remember you want the water to flow
into the watershed and not to
overshoot the confluence point.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
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x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
Is this where you drew the last segment of
the watershed boundary? If it is, you have
correctly delineated the watershed
boundary for Billy Goat Run watershed. If
its not, compare your results to this map to
find where you went wrong. Remember,
determining the flow direction will allow you
to correctly delineate the watershed
boundary.
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x x xx x
x xx x
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x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
x xx x
The next two pages are different topographic
maps you can use to test yourself on watershed
delineation. In this first example, delineate the
watershed boundary for Lynn Camp Run.
In this example, determine the watershed
boundary for Laurel Run. The correct
watershed boundary delineation for each
example is provided in the last 2 pages.